Story: Rowing

Despite a relatively low level of participation, New Zealand has achieved remarkable international success in rowing, taking eight Olympic gold medals, one silver and four bronzes between 2000 and 2016.

Story by David Green
Main image: Rob Waddell at the Sydney Olympics, 2000

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Rowing and sculling

Rowers use one oar each. Boats are crewed by two, four or eight rowers, each with one oar on alternate sides of the boat.

Scullers have two oars each. They race alone, or in pairs or fours.

Eight-person (and some four-person and two-person) boats are steered by a coxswain.


Rowing was originally simply a way to travel across water, rather than a sport. In England, rowing for sport began in the 1740s, and became established in elite schools and universities.

New Zealand’s first rowing club was set up in Christchurch in 1861. By the early 1870s there were enough clubs for interprovincial regattas to be held. The New Zealand Amateur Rowing Association was set up in 1887. In the 2000s Rowing New Zealand was the national body.


Early regattas were held on harbours, lakes and straight stretches of rivers. Later races were also held on artificial lakes created for hydroelectric projects.

Who rows?

Rowing was basically an all-male sport until after the First World War. The first women’s title at a national championship was in 1967. Since 1947 school rowing teams have competed for the Maadi Cup.

International rowing

There have been three major phases in New Zealand international rowing.

  • Single sculling, to the 1920s: over a 15-year period the world professional sculling title was held by New Zealanders Billy Webb (1907–8), Dick Arnst (1908–12 and 1921–22) and Darcy Hadfield (1922). Hadfield won bronze at the Antwerp Olympics in 1920.
  • Men’s eight, 1930s to 1980s: New Zealand focused on the men’s eight, winning gold at the Munich Olympics in 1972.
  • Smaller crews, 1990s–2016: New Zealand achieved considerable success in smaller boats, particularly from 2000 onwards. They won eight Olympic gold medals, one silver and four bronzes between 2000 and 2016. Gold medallists included Rob Waddell, Caroline and Georgina Evers-Swindell, Mahé Drysdale, and Hamish Bond and Eric Murray.

International events in New Zealand

Major events held in New Zealand include the 1950 Empire Games and the 1978 and 2010 world championships.

How to cite this page:

David Green, 'Rowing', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 June 2024)

Story by David Green, published 5 September 2013, updated 19 September 2016